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Lani Leary, Ph.D.

Lani Leary Ph.D.

Death Does Not End a Relationship

Continuing emotional bonds triumph over death.

Key points

  • Acceptance of the dying process mitigates fear, which allows space for love to be shared.
  • When a loved one dies, one can maintain their identity in relation to the deceased and continue that person's legacy.
  • Love transcends death. This because the meaning of a relationship, and the love one has for the deceased, continues.

Death changes our physical relationship with one another, but dying well can enhance our emotional bond to our beloved. Death changes a relationship, but it need not end it.

Dying well means dying with authenticity. Authenticity is maintained when we are able to live our days, right up to the end, with our values intact.

Dying well has more to do with overcoming our fears than with defeating disease or aging. Anxiety and fears are barriers to both giving and receiving compassionate care. When the dying and their loved ones can approach dying openly, accepting it as a natural process, they become open to comfort and acceptance which leads to more peace and less fear during the dying process. Fear is replaced with profound sharing of what is important between people. Relationships have space to deepen.

Maintaining the role of "daughter" or "son"

A relationship is an association, a connection, a link, and a tie between loved ones. We can choose to continue to be in a relationship with our loved ones even after their death, even in spite of their physical absence. I am still my father’s daughter long after his death. I maintain the identity of “daughter” by my behavior and the ways that I maintain that role. I continue to act as his daughter.

“Daughter” is both a noun and a verb. I behave in ways that demonstrate that I am not finished being his daughter. I extend myself to his friends, attend to the charities he cared about, and maintain the values he cherished. A relationship is about caretaking and it is part of my grief recovery to create opportunities to care for people, beliefs, and values as he would, in his stead. The legacy of his values and what I do with that legacy is an ongoing gift that links me to him and maintains his presence in my life today.

With that attitude, we can look for ways that our loved ones made a difference in the community. We look for ways to maintain their values through projects, carry out anonymous acts of kindness, and continue to participate in activities that we enjoyed together. It is empowering to maintain a relationship with him, no matter how private or invisible. It is personal, real, and meaningful. The emotional bond is intact and strong even after death.

A triumph of love

Dying well is a triumph of love over the illusions embedded within death. What is left after the person is gone is the meaning of the relationship and the survivors that are left holding the love for that person. Dying well is about knowing the relationship will change through death, but the bond of love transcends death. We are human beings who seek meaning and people to love; helping our loved ones die well reconciles both needs.

Transforming relationships means learning to carry our deceased loved ones in a new way. We learn, through trial and error, how to weave our loved ones and their values into this new life without them. We create a new life that evokes the memories, values, and ethics of our loved ones. We live with them in this new world and relate to their memory in a new way. But through love, we can always be in relationship with them.

In what ways do you "keep" a deceased loved one with you? How do you continue to be in relationship with him or her? How have you maintained your connection to them? Do you have rituals to remember him? Have you felt their presence with you through one sense or another?

There is a body of research about the continuing presence of deceased loved ones, termed After Death Communication (ADC). The consensus of the literature is that the different forms of communication and contact are profoundly comforting and reassuring to the bereaved.